Quantum physics is the study of matter and energy at the most fundamental level. It aims to uncover the properties and behaviors of the very building blocks of nature.
While many quantum experiments examine very small objects, such as electrons and photons, quantum phenomena are all around us, acting on every scale. However, we may not be able to detect them easily in larger objects. This may give the wrong impression that quantum phenomena are bizarre or otherworldly. In fact, quantum science closes gaps in our knowledge of physics to give us a more complete picture of our everyday lives.
Quantum discoveries have been incorporated into our foundational understanding of materials, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. These discoveries are a valuable resource for innovation, giving rise to devices such as lasers and transistors, and enabling real progress on technologies once considered purely speculative, such as quantum computers. Physicists are exploring the potential of quantum science to transform our view of gravity and its connection to space and time. Quantum science may even reveal how everything in the universe (or in multiple universes) is connected to everything else through higher dimensions that our senses cannot comprehend.
The Origins of Quantum Physics
The field of quantum physics arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s from a series of experimental observations of atoms that didn't make intuitive sense in the context of classical physics. Among the basic discoveries was the realization that matter and energy can be thought of as discrete packets, or quanta, that have a minimum value associated with them. For example, light of a fixed frequency will deliver energy in quanta called "photons." Each photon at this frequency will have the same amount of energy, and this energy can't be broken down into smaller units. In fact, the word "quantum" has Latin roots and means "how much."
Knowledge of quantum principles transformed our conceptualization of the atom, which consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. Early models depicted electrons as particles that orbited the nucleus, much like the way satellites orbit Earth. Modern quantum physics instead understands electrons as being distributed within orbitals, mathematical descriptions that represent the probability of the electrons' existence in more than one location within a given range at any given time. Electrons can jump from one orbital to another as they gain or lose energy, but they cannot be found between orbitals.
Other central concepts helped to establish the foundations of quantum physics:
Wave-particle duality: This principle dates back to the earliest days of quantum science. It describes the outcomes of experiments that showed that light and matter had the properties of particles or waves, depending on how they were measured. Today, we understand that these different forms of energy are actually neither particle nor wave. They are distinct quantum objects that we cannot easily conceptualize.
Superposition: This is a term used to describe an object as a combination of multiple possible states at the same time. A superposed object is analogous to a ripple on the surface of a pond that is a combination of two waves overlapping. In a mathematical sense, an object in superposition can be represented by an equation that has more than one solution or outcome.
Uncertainty principle: This is a mathematical concept that represents a trade-off between complementary points of view. In physics, this means that two properties of an object, such as its position and velocity, cannot both be precisely known at the same time. If we precisely measure the position of an electron, for example, we will be limited in how precisely we can know its speed.
Entanglement: This is a phenomenon that occurs when two or more objects are connected in such a way that they can be thought of as a single system, even if they are very far apart. The state of one object in that system can't be fully described without information on the state of the other object. Likewise, learning information about one object automatically tells you something about the other and vice versa.
Mathematics and the Probabilistic Nature of Quantum Objects
Because many of the concepts of quantum physics are difficult if not impossible for us to visualize, mathematics is essential to the field. Equations are used to describe or help predict quantum objects and phenomena in ways that are more exact than what our imaginations can conjure.
Mathematics is also necessary to represent the probabilistic nature of quantum phenomena. For example, the position of an electron may not be known exactly. Instead, it may be described as being in a range of possible locations (such as within an orbital), with each location associated with a probability of finding the electron there.
Given their probabilistic nature, quantum objects are often described using mathematical "wave functions," which are solutions to what is known as the Schrödinger equation. Waves in water can be characterized by the changing height of the water as the wave moves past a set point. Similarly, sound waves can be characterized by the changing compression or expansion of air molecules as they move past a point. Wave functions don't track with a physical property in this way. The solutions to the wave functions provide the likelihoods of where an observer might find a particular object over a range of potential options. However, just as a ripple in a pond or a note played on a trumpet are spread out and not confined to one location, quantum objects can also be in multiple places—and take on different states, as in the case of superposition—at once.
Observation of Quantum Objects
The act of observation is a topic of considerable discussion in quantum physics. Early in the field, scientists were baffled to find that simply observing an experiment influenced the outcome. For example, an electron acted like a wave when not observed, but the act of observing it caused the wave to collapse (or, more accurately, "decohere") and the electron to behave instead like a particle. Scientists now appreciate that the term "observation" is misleading in this context, suggesting that consciousness is involved. Instead, "measurement" better describes the effect, in which a change in outcome may be caused by the interaction between the quantum phenomenon and the external environment, including the device used to measure the phenomenon. Even this connection has caveats, though, and a full understanding of the relationship between measurement and outcome is still needed.
Perhaps the most definitive experiment in the field of quantum physics is the double-slit experiment. This experiment, which involves shooting particles such as photons or electrons though a barrier with two slits, was originally used in 1801 to show that light is made up of waves. Since then, numerous incarnations of the experiment have been used to demonstrate that matter can also behave like a wave and to demonstrate the principles of superposition, entanglement, and the observer effect.
The field of quantum science may seem mysterious or illogical, but it describes everything around us, whether we realize it or not. Harnessing the power of quantum physics gives rise to new technologies, both for applications we use today and for those that may be available in the future.
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